Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

By Carla Thornton

WHEN YOU DECIDED to get a parrot, everyone offered the same sage advice: get one bird. You want a friendly bird that will love only you, right? Then a single bird is the only way to go.

Lucy and Leilani
Doting "sisters" Lucy, a noble macaw, and Leilani, an eclectus, enjoy some quality time together.

So you got one bird. Now you wonder if that was such a good idea after all.

Your bird loves you, all right – too much. He screams for your attention. He plucks his feathers when you're not around.

Seems he’s dreaming of a beautiful interspecies relationship that can never be: the two of you, sitting side by side all day, preening each other, sharing regurgitated pellets.

You, on the other hand, are feeling a tad smothered. Lately you've been seriously considering bucking the whole "one-bird-is-best" conventional wisdom. Maybe another parrot is just what you - and your bird - need.

Then again, you're not sure if you’re ready to lose his affection. What to do?

Consider the downsides
Many people own multiple parrots, but before expanding your feathered family, you should consider all the potential drawbacks, say experts.

An obvious one is the additional responsibility.

"An owner who assumes that his bird needs a companion is really not taking responsibility for addressing the larger question," said Susan Farlow, a bird behavior consultant based in Lincoln, Mass.

"Does the human need the additional responsibility, the additional work, and the additional costs associated with multiple birds, and is he or she capable of offering the additional love and attention that all the birds will require?"

A second bird may not cure a screaming or featherpicking problem, said Farlow. In fact, your first bird may teach the new one his bad habits.

A second bird may not cure a screaming or plucking problem. He may learn the same bad habits.

"Pluckers can sometimes demonstrate the behavior to other birds who may then start to pluck, or parrots will sometimes pluck their companions," she said. (Check out these tips for eliminating screaming and plucking.)

Knock-down dragouts
The biggest obstacle you're likely to encounter is incompatibility. Unlike cats and dogs, which generally are capable of accepting new housemates, many parrots never learn to get along, even when they are of the same species. Encounters can be fractious or even dangerous.

"I've broken up a few fights," said Debi Schwartz, who owns six birds, including a male Amazon and a female Amazon who are enemies. "I'm basically the referee."

It's almost impossible to predict which birds will get along, said Liz Wilson, a Philadelphia, Pa., bird behavior consultant, because birds are like people, with different personalities and preferences.

"If you had one child and your wife was pregnant, could you predict that the two kids would get along? Of course not. After all, my brother and I didn't learn to truly enjoy each other until we were both in our thirties. Parrots can be just as unpredictable."

Four times the fun
Still, many people decide to go the multiple-bird route. In a recent informal poll, the majority of respondents said they were glad they acquired a second bird – and sometimes a third, fourth or more – to keep their first bird company.

Lynda Lewis' response was typical of the ones we received. "We have four conures and it is four times the kisses, four times the cuddles and four times the fun," she wrote. "I have seen my first conure grow happier with his companions than when he was alone."

Getting another parrot sometimes can be a good idea, said Kenneth Welle, DVM, ABVP, owner of All Creatures Hospital in Urbana, Ill.

"The presence of other birds can be comforting for a bird. The fact that they see someone else looking out for danger makes them a little less anxious about being alone. It can give them someone to talk to," said Welle.

"Also, sometimes having multiple birds will prevent the owner from excessively doting on one, helping to avoid the 'pair-bond' that’s unhealthy for the bird."

Looking for love
One route you can go is supplying your bird with a mate. After all, an opposite-sex bird of the same species would be his first choice in the wild.

But playing Cupid can be risky. In nature, where they have plenty of space to roam and opportunities to choose, parrots rarely hurt one another. In our homes, forced encounters can result in squabbling or worse.

Laura LaFay decided to get her Quaker parakeet, Gaspard, a mate after two years because she didn't want him to be alone all day. The arrival of Coco, a female Quaker, quickly dispelled LaFay’s "Disney ideas of two inseparable birds snuggling and chattering together."

"They hated each other. Or, rather, Gaspard hated Coco and Coco feared Gaspard."

In nature, where they have plenty of space to roam and opportunities to choose, parrots rarely hurt each other.

Despite endless "friendship sessions," during which LaFay would attempt to put the Quakers on the same perch together and encourage them to interact, hostilities continued for a year and a half, she said. The two birds now seem to have reached a truce.

"I doubt they'll ever snuggle, but Gaspard spends a good deal of time on and around Coco's cage, and she doesn't seem to mind. They call to each other when they are out of eyeshot, and for the most part, they get along."

Divorce, parrot style
Some relationships start out great but don't last. Debi Schwartz’s blue-front Amazons, George and Jo, lived together happily for years. Then Jo needed surgery and the two had to be separated. By the time Jo was healed, George had changed his mind.

"He chased her, attacked her, was a total bully," said Schwartz. "It was so sad because they were so sweet together."

In some species, the stress of confinement can have deadly consequences. Male Moluccan and umbrella cockatoos are notorious for killing their mates, sometimes after years of peaceful cohabitation.

Even the little budgie has a violent streak. When Kit Kat the budgie showed an interest in Rory Bancroft's new female parakeet, Bancroft thought the two might enjoy living together. They seemed to get along famously until one evening when Bancroft returned home and found Kit Kat unceremoniously munching on her dead cagemate’s beak.

Ajax and Iggy
Linda Peskac hoped that Ajax, a friendly blue-front Amazon, would charm lonesome Iggy, a Goffin's cockatoo, but Iggy has kept his distance.

Bancroft said she will be a lot more careful from now on.

"I think they're just like humans. You never really know what's going to make them unhappy, so you just have to take the safest route at making them comfortable in your home."

Keep it friendly
Of course, not all arranged avian marriages end unhappily. Some birds eventually form mutually agreeable platonic relationships at the least.

When Katherine Goffin went back to work, her male cockatiel, Princeton, became depressed over the loss of his favorite human. Goffin decided to bring home a female cockatiel, Blondie, to cheer him up.

At first Princeton despised the separately caged Blondie, said Goffin. But over several months of "baby steps" toward bringing them closer together, he finally warmed up to his new friend. Now they share the same cage and keep each other company during the day.

"They aren't physically close or affectionate but they respect each other's space and comfortably share food, toys, and sleeping space," she says.

When Goffin and her husband return from work each day, the birds "each get their love and snuggling from their humans, Princeton from me and Blondie from my husband."

Privacy, please
If your mated birds become a romantic couple, it can lead to a full and happy relationship for them. However, you might be left with another set of complications, including aggression toward you.

Laura Brookham quickly became the fifth wheel in the relationship when she moved her two Amazons, a male and a female, into the same cage. "Now they try to bite me when I get too close," she says.

Another possible consequence of mated birds is unwanted breeding. While letting your birds have chicks can be fun and exciting, it also is a big responsibility, warns Sue Farlow.

"Owners need to be very clear, and very prepared if they are investing in a male and female of the same species, because there is a strong possibility that at some future time they will have to hand feed babies, particularly if the parents are inexperienced or disinterested."

If the chicks make it to adulthood, "then the humans involved must face the sometimes painful and daunting job of placing the juvenile birds," Farlow adds.

Even if the couple turns out to be infertile, mated females typically lay more eggs, which can expose them to serious health problems such as egg-binding. Neutering is not an option for birds.

The odd couple
Occasionally parrots are able to form close bonds with a same-sex bird or even one of a different species.

Arlene Cusumano's five-year-old male cockatiel, Rocky, accepted another male cockatiel she adopted from an elderly man who could no longer keep him.

Rocky was standoffish at first, but now the two birds are happily living together in a large cage and have become a couple, says Cusumano, "with Baby preening and protecting Rocky."

Larey Hazelton had been told it was risky to mix parrot species. However, when he decided to get his first bird, he wound up adopting two: a yellow-collar macaw and umbrella cockatoo who happened to need homes at the same time.

Jade and Gilligan
It was love at first sight for mixed-species couple Gilligan, a sun conure, and Jade, a Hahn's macaw.

The gamble seems to have paid off. While the cockatoo makes most of the effort at maintaining a relationship by feeding and preening the macaw, the two birds happily eat, sleep and bathe together, said Hazelton.

"We’ve been a family for three years now. Everyone seems to be happy, so I guess we must have done something right."

When opposites attract
Getting a female Solomon Island eclectus as a playmate for her female noble macaw, Lucy, has worked out beautifully, says Wendy Knowles Drake of Kirkland, Wash.

The more laid-back personality of Leilana, the larger eclectus, meshes perfectly with smaller Lucy's outgoing behavior. They hang out together on the same play-tree and "preen each other all the time."

The only thing that bothers Leilani is when Lucy tries to eat her food, says Drake. "She'll actually sit on the food dish to prevent it. Nobody loves to eat like an eclectus!"

It was love at first sight for Barbara Noach's sun conure, Gilligan, and Jade, a Hahn's macaw she brought home as a companion.

"I was a little nervous that Gilligan would be resentful, or stressed when I put them together. Not even close. Right from the start they have played, preened each other and fed each other like they were clutchmates."

The birds have separate cages, but spend most of their time together, said Noach, who introduced them by putting them on the same playgym.

"Now that I see them together, I can't imagine how they would have lived alone. I really think they would have sorely missed out on a big part of their instinctive needs for interacting with other birds."

It was the same story for six-month-old sun conure, Jimi, and Fenix, a 10-month-old Nanday conure Ricci Paulsen brought home as a playmate.

Paulsen placed the two birds on the floor, and "within minutes they were side by side preening each other. They continue to be the best of friends."

When friendships go bad
Not all mixed-species relationships stand the test of time. Sometimes one party is left with unrequited longings, or worse.

When Linda Peskac's lonely Goffin's cockatoo, Iggy, became depressed and lost his appetite, she decided to bring home a gregarious Amazon to cheer him up.

Ajax the blue-front Amazon, said Peskac, "fell madly in love" with the cockatoo, a bird about the same size as he. Ajax pursued the reluctant object of his affections around the house, "but the feeling wasn’t mutual, and still isn't."

Jimi and Fenix
Jimi, a female sun conure, nuzzles Fenix, a male Nanday conure. They sleep in separate cages so owner Ricci Paulsen can monitor any attempts at mating.

Belinda Ellis is one of many parrot owners who have been shocked when birds thought to be pals suddenly turned on one another.

Ellis' two macaws and African grey were buddies until the two larger birds began bonding and teamed up on the grey, lacerating his feet so badly he needed surgery. While under anesthesia, the grey died.

"We have had birds for some ten years now and had never had this happen before," said Ellis sadly.

A disparity in size created a serious problem for Zorro, a conure who accidentally flew into Lynda Lewis' cockatoo, Tyler.

The smaller bird's actions startled the normally docile Tyler, who reacted by crushing Zorro's skull in her beak with one quick motion. Zorro survived, but the Lewis family was traumatized and paid hundreds of dollars in vet bills.

"Warn your readers of the dangers of letting big and little birds be around each other," she said. "Tyler is a good girl and would never deliberately hurt a fly. Yet when scared she lashed out. It can happen to the nicest birds."

Bill and Wally arrived at Foster Parrots, a Boston-area parrot sanctuary, as best friends despite the radical difference in their sizes. Bill was a mitred conure, Wally was a blue-and-gold macaw, about four times Bill's size.

The odd couple happily cuddled and preened one another until the day Wally became annoyed and grabbed Bill's beak, cracking it.

Bill has since been paired with a cherry-headed conure at the sanctuary, says director Marc Johnson, and they've remained happy together.

"They've stayed together, which is kind of interesting," he says. "When you bring other birds in, they'll often switch partners if they like someone better. It's a marriage of convenience, you might say."

One big happy family
When trial relationships don't work out or birds are too dissimilar to be friends, the best you can hope for is to provide nearby companions your parrot can enjoy calling to and interacting with under supervision.

While none of their birds have bonded, Dave and Deb Beigler say they have built one big happy feathered family of 16 birds ranging in size from conures to macaws. The birds "cage hop" and share playgrounds.

Sharon M. Williams’s cockatiel Billy and Petey, the green Quaker she bought to be his companion, aren't allowed to get close enough to preen because of the disparity in sizes, but they play on separate tiers of a playgym and call to Savannah, an African grey who also has her own cage. Making sure the three birds get an equal amount of attention is "very much like having three children in some ways," Williams says.

When trial relationships don't work out, at least you've provided a companion your bird can call to.

Meri Fox-Szauter's attempt to provide her bird with a friend turned out similarly. The green-masked lovebird she brought home to be her peach-faced lovebird's companion turned out to be aggressive.

She has since added a Senegal to the fray, but she doesn't mind keeping everyone in line. As long as she pays equal attention, the birds have declared a truce and almost seem to enjoy one another’s company. "A house full of bird song is indeed a happy house," she reasons.

A new bird in the house seemed to work a similar tonic on Cheerio, Janice Gould's Senegal. Gould felt guilty about leaving Cheerio alone while she worked long hours. "It seemed as if he sat in one place all day long - his droppings were in a pile."

Cheerio refused to become friends with Melba, a Meyer’s Gould brought home to be company for him. However, Cheerio seems to have more zest for life now, Gould says. "He's using his whole cage, taking apart his toys, and eating all his vegetables and fruits."

Dating guidelines
There is no guarantee that any new bird you bring home will become close pals with your current parrot. However, to increase the odds in your favor, aim for birds of similar size and temperament, say experts.

Never allow even supervised interactions between large and small species, such as a cockatiel and a macaw. No matter how gentle the larger parrot may seem, the size disparity is too dangerous for the smaller bird.

You can permanently cross some species off your list of potential playmates, even if they may be similar in size, because of their pugnacious personalities. The best example is the lory, a colorful parrot about the length of a cockatiel but stockier.

Nell Clayton, a rescuer in Valdez, Alaska, who cares for up to 27 parrots at a time comprising a range of species from conures to macaws, said her small red lory is the only bird she cannot allow to mingle with the others.

"He will attack any other bird that is out of the cage, including the scarlet macaw and the cockatoos. He is very gentle with me, but knows no fear with the birds or for that matter, my three large dogs. And when he attacks, he hurts."

Quarantine for disease
It would be tragic if your attempt to provide a friend resulted in your bird contracting an incurable disease.

Newcomers that have lived alone in the same home for many years are least likely to be ill, said Dr. Kenneth Welle. Still, some diseases can lie dormant until the stress of a move. Or, the new bird could carry an illness to which your bird happens to be more susceptible.

"For instance, lovebirds are relatively resistant to psittacosis and so they may have it for months or years without showing signs, then they get into a house with a macaw and suddenly the macaw is very ill," said Welle.

Younger birds, with less developed immune systems, also can be more susceptible to exposure, he said.

It would be tragic if your attempt to provide a friend resulted in your bird contracting an incurable disease.

To be on the safe side, take the new bird for a thorough checkup, then quarantine him in a part of your home with a separate air system until you can be reasonably sure he's not ill.

The standard quarantine period is 45 to 60 days, but some owners extend it up to six months.

Meet in neutral territory
The big day has arrived: you're going to introduce your bird to a new pal! In rare cases, parrots may click and become instant best buddies, cuddling and preening one another. However, most of the time, even parrots of the same species need time to get acquainted.

You can increase their chances of getting along by observing a few rules, says behavior expert Liz Wilson.

After the birds have had a chance to get to know one another from the safety of side-by-side cages, take them to a neutral area in another room.

"Birds are extremely territorial creatures, far more, perhaps, than many species of mammals. If you want to minimize the risk of injury, you must find a totally neutral area for introductions," said Wilson.

Dixie and Diablo
Diablo, a blue-front Amazon, tenderly preens Dixie, a double-yellow headed Amazon, after they move into the same cage together.

"In this neutral territory, place the birds a distance from each other, allowing them to come together only if they so choose. You can do this on, for example, a bed or large table."

In observance of Murphy’s Law, Wilson recommends attempting introductions when your avian veterinarian is available, just in case problems arise.

If the birds develop a hierarchy, allow it barring injuries, says Wilson. Power struggles can be a normal part of sorting out the relationship. "For example, a normally submissive parrot might become extremely dominant around its own cage," she notes.

Also, in some species such as eclectuses, one sex is naturally more dominant than the other. (The eclectus female in this case.)

While you should remain on guard against dangerous aggression, remember that some body language that might be interpreted as violence could be a normal, even playful, interaction between birds that have gotten to know one another well, said Wilson.

For instance, some large parrots beak wrestle, which is normal, according to scientists, said Wilson.

"People frequently tell me their parrots 'hate each other' because they grab each other’s beaks and yell. However, this can also be interpreted as normal play, rather like two small boys wrestling good-naturedly on the playground.”

Your place or mine?
No matter how well your parrot and new friend may be getting along, it’s best to provide them with separate cages, at least for awhile. Eventually, they may prove compatible enough to set up housekeeping together.

Laura Brookham's male blue-front Amazon, Diablo, and a new female double yellow-head Amazon, Dixie, had been in separate cages for six months when the two birds began to "beg" to be in the same enclosure, she says.

Brookham was afraid to put the two powerful birds together. "Most of the advice we received from vets and breeders was to do it slowly, or not at all. We were told the male would be too aggressive."

Bill and Wally
Wally the blue-and-gold macaw wraps a protective wing around best buddy Bill, a mitred conure, in happier times.

Finally Brookham sought the advice of a trusted veterinarian who told her he doubted the two Amazons would kill one another. "He said, 'If the cage is big enough, throw them in together and make them work it out.'"

While this was not the most reassuring advice, Brookham decided to try it after Dixie and Diablo had been living in side-by-side cages for about a year.

"There were no major fights, and now they are best buddies, with little use for my husband or me,” says Brookham. "They love to talk to us, but will bite us without a second thought. It looks like they are simply protecting each other."

Community cages have worked for rescuer Nell Clayton, too. A Senegal and Meyers who once bickered now happily share a cage, as do an African grey and a severe macaw.

The benefits of separate cages
Wendy Knowles Drake believes separate cages keep her devoted eclectus and macaw happy with one another. "Each knows that if she has had enough, she can fly to her own cage for some solo time."

Susan Farlow agrees with Drake's approach. "Birds can benefit from the knowledge that there is a sanctuary that is entirely their own, particularly birds that are shy or more recently added to the household, or birds who are less dominant in the flock dynamics," she believes.

Separate cages also offer the benefit of allowing owners to keep better track of their birds' health. "The consumption of food and water, and the condition of the droppings can be most effectively monitored when birds are caged singly," notes Farlow.

Ricci Paulsen keeps her sun and Nanday conures in separate cages so she can monitor any attempts at breeding. She had hoped the two closely related species were the same sex, but DNA testing revealed them to be a male and a female, which would result in hybrid chicks.

"We have no interest in breeding birds, and definitely don't want to breed two different species," she says.

One is not the loneliest number
Attempting to provide your bird with a feathered friend can be a pet adventure on a grand scale. You never know how it will turn out.

One possible outcome is multiple birds that don't get along.

While she would be hard-pressed to part with any of her birds, if she had it to do over again she would have only one, said Shirley Ostendorf, whose Senegal, Congo African grey, cockatiel and white-cap pionus vie for her affections.

"I am single, work full time and live alone, so the birds are all pretty focused on me. They each prefer my attention and will fight with each other if they manage to get close enough. There is also the expense of care, food, toys and appropriate-size cages."

It took only one encounter with a cranky cockatiel to convince Ingrid Harrington her six-year-old white-bellied caique is better off an only bird. Harrington considered keeping the cockatiel, which she rescued from her yard last year, but found it a new home after it tried to bite YoYo.

YoYo is "as pleased as punch to be an only bird," Harrington claims. "She came from a busy, noisy bird store and was frightened by all the ruckus. She lives quietly with us (most of the time, except when the water is turned on) and chatters away and does birdy things all day.”

Single birds can be just as happy as coupled ones if their owners are attentive.

Behavior expert Farlow agrees that single birds can be just as happy as coupled ones if their owners are attentive.

"Never automatically assume your bird needs a companion," she says. "A well loved parrot with a good stimulating environment, a well-outfitted cage and adequate social time with humans can be a very happy bird."

More is better
Owners like Nell Clayton remain unconvinced. Living in a large noisy group of distracting birds has cured some of the feather pluckers she has rescued, she says. "They soon seem to forget about it what with the commotion of the other birds."

Teresa Haselton has disproved the rule that coupled birds won't also bond with their owners. She has forged a close relationship with both of her mated Quakers, she says, giving them and her the best of both worlds.

"Everyone told me to separate them or they wouldn't be good 'pets'. I decided not to. They were happy with each other and loved each other," she says of the birds, which she adopted as a pair.

Haselton instead tried giving the birds equal attention. Now they are just as devoted to her as they are to each other, she says.

"It's the most beautiful thing to have them both on my shoulders. I kiss Rocky on his beak, then Carmen, and then they'll kiss each other and do their beak lock thing."

Laura Brookham lost the affection of her Amazon, who fell for the girl in the next-door cage after months of mutual flirting. But Brookham would not change anything.

"They are wonderfully happy, love each other, and still enjoy verbal contact with my husband and me. I would never make my birds live alone again. Sure they fight sometimes, and yell sometimes, but more often they are playing together and preening each other."

The backup cage
Just in case things sour, budgie owner Rory Bancroft offers her own sage advice for bird owners who would play matchmaker.

"Always have a second cage," she advises. "And know that if they do get along, you should consider yourself lucky." Published 2003. All rights reserved


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